Paris in the Rain

A collection of nine photos from nine (mostly) rainy days in Paris.

By Mariachiara Ficarelli

Paris in the rain is not enjoyable, at least for the tourist. There is nothing romantic about walking around the city in wellington boots and an umbrella. Your feet get cold and sore. You lose the umbrella halfway through the day. It lies forgotten in a puddle in a corner of one of the thousands of boutiques you ducked into, trying to escape the drizzle. So you buy a tacky umbrella with tiny Eiffel towers plastered all over it. It is not your first choice, but it is cheap and the only one you can find in your immediate surroundings. In case it was not already glaringly obvious that you are a tourist, now it is.

But, Paris in the rain has a charm. It allows for hours spent exploring the catacombs of churches; for long dinners, sitting nestled in between the warmth radiated by stacks of books and patterned rugs. It creates sighs of wonder, when the sun emerges for a brief second at sunset and illuminates the towers of Notre Dame. The rain offers an excuse to take an Uber across the city, the car-ride spent observing, through the foggy window, the blur of the famous lights of Paris. It is an excuse to pull up the neck of your black overcoat and walk with a purpose pretending to be a local (until you realize you are lost and then have to spend the next five minutes cowering under the covering of a storefront trying to find your way back).

Paris in the rain is for inventing. For the writer, the thinker and the explorer. Paris in the rain is not for the tourist.

A quiet moment of reflection shared between two strangers in one of the chapels of Saint Denis.
Iris Samuels makes her way up the staircase to Elaine Sciolino’s and Andrew Plump’s apartment for dinner. The lights from outside intermingled with the rivulets of rain on the windowpane make for the formation of patterns on the wall.
One of the towers of Notre Dame as seen from in front of the Shakespeare and Company bookstore. At dusk, the rain finally halts and the sun highlights the tumultuous skies.
Rachel Stone turns to look at a bouquet of flowers caught in the early morning light streaming in through the doors at Rungis Market.
A woman walks past a mural in the 19th arrondissement. The neighborhood is quiet and laidback, home to many hip and upcoming places.
Elaine Sciolino writes in her notepad in the Petit Trianon during a private tour of the château, led by Bertrand Rondot, head curator of the Museum of Versailles.
Rachel Stone and Iris Samuels huddle under the cover of an umbrella looking at a map on their phone. They realize they have gotten lost on their way to the restaurant for dinner.
Katherine Trout leans against the seat of the Uber, captivated by the scenes of Paris at night flashing by through the rain-fogged window.
A collection of different types tomatoes, bought from a vendor on the Rue des Martyrs.

© All Photos by Mariachiara Ficarelli

Daydream in Blue

By Mariachiara Ficarelli

The couple makes its way across the Pont des Arts with arrogance.

Their movements are a calculated dance – a celebration of the fact that with every step they take, more and more eyes linger on them. With a slow, symmetrical grace, they navigate their way across the bridge.

The man and the woman both have shoulder-length brown hair. They are wearing matching denim and black leather outfits that accentuate their long, thin bodies. Their faces are hidden behind large dark glasses. They move with the confidence of people who know they are beautiful. And beautiful they are.

Caught in their aura, I forget where I am. The façade of the Louvre and the people sitting along the riverbanks of Île de la Cité fade away. For a moment, all that exists in Paris are these two elegant figures, with intertwined fingers, and a pale blue horizon. Their seduction is in their anonymity. The possibilities are infinite. My brain begins spinning stories. Are they film stars, models or lovers?

They disappear. Their presence lingers. A void forms in between the zigzagging tourists. I walk into it.

I am eager to leave the wide sidewalks next to the expanse of buildings that make the Louvre. A traffic light halts my march. I notice a young woman sitting on the back of a Vespa at the crossing. She is wearing a bright pink coat. Her face is familiar. I know her. Or at least I think I do. Before I can decide, the Vespa zooms off. I am left unsure. Pedestrians stream around me as the lights change. I melt into the crowd.

I walk briskly. I move towards the third arrondissement, taking a diversion to avoid the Saturday afternoon shoppers at Les Halles. I find myself in the Marais, with café tables spilling onto the sidewalks filled with a mix of locals and tourists sipping coffees, enjoying being en plein air (in open air) on this warm, spring afternoon.

I look up at the top-floor apartment windows, glinting in the sun. I remember staying in one as a little girl. The apartment was above a boulangerie and every morning my mother would buy fresh baguettes to eat with the strawberry jam. I am not sure where exactly this apartment was. I know it is somewhere in this area. I keep turning down side streets with the hope of stumbling across the building. I tell myself I will recognize it. But the likelihood is that I have already passed it.

I feel alone. I shiver slightly as a breeze whips my ankles. A skirt was an overeager decision, the desire for summer. I am filled with memories of my last visit to this city. I yearn to once again have tiny hands that grip eagerly those of my parents, to follow blindly and not have to think about how to find my way back to the hotel.

Oh, how Paris makes you dream.

The apartment windows of Parisian buildings. Photo by Mariachiara Ficarelli.

The Pineapple Express Makes a Stop at Versailles

By Mariachiara Ficarelli

The pineapple is a royal fruit. With a golden, diamond pattern and crown of leaves, it is a fruit fit for the opulent and lavish landscape of the Versailles Palace.

Yet, in all the pineapple’s prickly grandeur, it is easy to overlook this exotic touch to the neoclassical décor. The velvet swathes of cloth that drape the beds and windows, the crystal chandeliers and the infinite mirrors radiate such extravagance that in comparison even the “king of fruits” is humbled.

The extent of the decorative occurrence of the pineapple is exclusive only to the keenest observers. In the Petit Trianon Palace, intermingled with the more common fruits like apples and grapes, the tuft of leaves of the pineapple appears in the wall decorations. The golden designs on the chest of drawers feature a horn of fruit with a pineapple emerging from the center. In the main palace, in the Queen’s Private Cabinets, a painting of a potted pineapple by Jean Baptiste Oudry hangs on the wall.

The pineapple, however, was not just a decorative decision made under Louis XIV to symbolize the 18th century European ethereal vision and glorification of distant lands. It was grown in the grounds of Versailles and was a feature on his table.

“Versailles was a scientific place for bringing plants from all over the world and there was a great interest specifically for pineapples,” says Bertrand Rondot, head curator of the Museum of the Château de Versailles.

Close to the Trianon is the “potager du Roi,” a 23-acre, green world of fruits and vegetables that provided sustenance for the inhabitants of Versailles. By the time of the French revolution, there were 800 pineapple plants growing.

Today, the pineapple is a common feature in France. From pineapple door handles in the Grand Pigalle Hotel to pineapple tomatoes sold at the local grocer, this golden fruit is no longer exclusive to the rich. This fruit has seduced France. A pineapple mania is gripping the country.

My pineapple backpack is a fitting addition to the Pineapple theme in Versailles. Photo by Iris Samuels.

Madame-President: Catherine Pégard

By Mariachiara Ficarelli

In the balustrade terraces of the Jardin du Luxembourg are a series of celebrated French female saints and queens. One day, Catherine Pégard may have a statue of her own.

Pégard is the president of the Château de Versailles. She has held this position since 2011 when Nicolas Sarkozy, the former French president, appointed her.

Yet, Pégard while having an executive role is not removed from the people and space she governs. It is perhaps her background working as a political journalist for Le Point, which allows Pégard to have such a profound on-the-ground knowledge of Versailles. She stresses the importance of being there.

“If you want to know something, you must know to be there,” she says.

And Pégard is there. She knows that the best moment to appreciate the Hall of Mirrors is at sunset when the light is pink. She knows that putting Angela Merkel’s office in the bathroom of Marie de Antoinette is the best way to impress the Chancellor of Germany. However, she also knows that she still has “everything to learn about Versailles.”

True to her origins as a journalist, Pégard understands that there is always something new to uncover that has been left out of “history with a Big H.”

She tells the anecdote of the discovery of the wedding between the driver and the secretary of President Eisenhower that took place in the chapel in the Palace as an example of “little h” history. It is such stories, left out of the commonly known history, which Pégard believes keep Versailles from becoming a “dead museum.”

However, Pégard does not aim to paint a rosy picture of her job with her heartwarming anecdotes. She states, “the good is better than you think and the bad is worse thank you think.”

Pégard does not feel the need to delve further into either the positive or the negative aspects of her job. Likewise, she does not feel the need to linger much on her position as a woman in the male-dominated French political environment.

“The most important things have been done,” Pégard says in reference to the representation of women in the French workplace.

She gestures to her pregnant assistant sitting at the end of the table to highlight her statement. Then she changes subject.

Pégard does not care for frills and much elaboration in any of her statements. She is straightforward. She knows that there is work to do. Above all, she knows that she will do it well.

A Key to (an Imagined) Paris

Do not lose the bedroom key of the Grand Pigalle Hotel. There are 37 keys: one per room. They hang in orderly lines on a glass mirror behind the reception desk. The composition exudes an expensive elegance. So do the keys.

The key in itself is rather unassuming. It is old-fashioned and golden, small enough to be clasped in the palm of a hand. What sets the key of the Grand Pigalle Hotel apart is the ten-centimeter long, black and red leather tassel attached to it. It is a fusion of modern and retro. The key is a physical embodiment of the atmosphere that this high-end boutique hotel is cultivating.

Nelson Siba, the new front desk manager, works the night shift until 10 p.m.. Sitting at the imposing, golden desk in the middle of the foyer, Nelson is the guardian of these keys. Like the key, Nelson appears to be a deliberate addition to the interior design. Shrouded in a yellow hue from the reflection of the desk, he radiates the demi-god aura of young Parisian class.

Nevertheless, Nelson is in tune with realities of a high demand job. Aside from being in charge of all the hotel’s bookings, Nelson also has to make sure that each day none of the keys gets lost.

“I have been here only one month. It is very stressful,” Nelson says. He does not look up from the screen of the desktop computer. His fingers fly across the keyboard, as he speaks.

It costs €85 to replace a key. Most importantly, there is only one spare key for each room. Supply is limited. Created by Dorothée Meilichzon, a 30-year-old Parisian interior designer, the key is unique to the Grand Pigalle Hotel. Meilichzon, who has worked in many of the European capitals, designed the key to be a cosmopolitan addition.

Florent Masse, a professor of French theater at Princeton University, describes the key as being caught between past and present.

“Old hotels in Paris used to have keys like this, now most hotels use the card,” Masse says.

The standard key-card is indisputably more convenient but convenience is not what the owners of Grande Pigalle are striving for.

“When I look at this key, I am reminded of silky Parisian weekend escapades,” Masse says holding up his own room key. “The key is Paris.”

The key is a distant echo of the Paris captured in the books of Hemingway. It tells a story of an idealized nostalgia for dreamy cafes, flowing wine and love. In many ways this key and this corner hotel are caught in a theatrical drama of the past. It offers an escape – for the privileged few – from the turbulent present that France currently finds itself in.

The Erotic Tomato

By Mariachiara Ficarelli

The Musée du Luxembourg halves the student ticket price at 4 p.m.. Arriving at 3:35pm, waiting less than half an hour to save € 4.25 is an easy decision. Museum gift stores are a good place to kill time.

In theme with the on-going Pissaro exhibit “La Nature Retrouvée” (Nature Rediscovered), the majority of books exhibited in the store are on agriculture, rural life and fruits and vegetables.

Lodged between two large books on traditional French recipes is a tiny, white Dictionnaire Littéraire et Érotique des Fruits et Legumes (Literary and Erotic Dictionary of Fruits and Vegetables) by Jean-Luc Hennig. The dictionary is a serendipitous discovery.

The pomme d’amour makes its first appearance of the day in the form of a chapter titled Tomates Farcies (stuffed tomatoes).

The tomato has a sensual history. With its bright red color, it became a symbol of female menstrual blood. The tomato was assigned bewitching and hypnotic powers. Hennig claims that in the Middle Ages there was no aphrodisiac more powerful than this blood. The tomato was associated with the sinful female blood. It was considered a red fever.

These days, the tomato has lost its associations of being a poisonous power. Yet, its pervasiveness around the city of Paris is like a tantalizing belladonna. There seems to be a tomato fever all year round. Fresh, preserved, dried, chopped or frozen, the tomato lures its lovers regardless of whether or not it is in season.

At Saint-Denis market, Emmo Itani, a fruit and vegetable vendor says, “My customers always buy my tomatoes even when they know they do not taste as good.”

It is an overcast first day of spring. But in a couple of months the tomato will be in full season, growing in all its juicy, red glory under the sun. Tasting better, the price of the tomato will increase. And so will the tomato frenzy.

Launching into the history of tomatoes. Photo by Mariachiara Ficarelli.

Listening to Vibrations from the Stones of Saint-Denis

By Mariachiara Ficarelli

Dealing with mediums is not included in the job-description of a docent of the Basilica of Saint-Denis. But after four years of working in Saint Denis, Amadine Deschamps, a 26 year-old archeologist, is accustomed to managing all the different kinds of tourists who wander inside.

“There are personne fou who come to listen to the vibrations of these stones,” says Amadine, pointing to the tomb of Charles Martel, a French prince buried in the abbey. “They think they can enter into communication with the dead.”

Most days, though, Amadine only has to handle the children that pinch the toes of the effigies carved on the tombs.

When Amadine graduated from Sorbonne University with a Masters in archeology, she looked for jobs that would “make her dream”. Yet, in France such “jobs of culture” are difficult to come across. Saint-Denis was an appealing opportunity for Amadine, as it allows her to pursue her passion in material culture, while still earn a decent living.

“We are not your image of a sleeping old man in a chair,” says Elliot Boulate, another docent.

The team of docents of the Basilica is young. The average age is 33 years old. These urban intellectuals stand at odds with the aging population that usually characterizes the workers of religious spaces around the city.

Elliot’s story is in a similar vain to that of Amadine’s. Planning to do a PhD in medieval studies, Elliot needs to save some money before continuing with his education.

“I am lucky that I get to spend my weekends surrounded by royalty,” Elliot says, referring to the more than 70 tombs of noble French men and women found in the Basilica.

These academics have found refuge from the burdens of unemployment within the basilica. Working in Saint-Denis is not just any temporary job. The Basilica offers a wealth of intellectual stimulation for its youthful safe-keepers. The supervisor of Amadine and Elliot allows them to study and engage with the Basilica in whichever way they like.

“I have the entire history of France right here!” says Amadine. “I keep uncovering new secrets all the time.

Bonjour Tokyo or Kon’nichiwa Paris?

By Mariachiara Ficarelli

The Japanese teahouse Toraya, found on a side street close to Place de La Concorde, is not cheap. You do not need to look at the prices on the menu to know this. The way the shop displays its sweets makes it obvious enough.

Wagashi, traditional Japanese sweets created with a sticky rice base, are placed in displays in the floor-to-ceiling windows of the storefront. They are molded into flowers and come in a palette of baby colors. Each one of these tiny, edible delights is placed on its own ceramic plate. The plate matches the color of the sweet it carries to the exact shade.

The sweets rival the lavish presentation of tartes aux fruits frais and bonbons found in the window exhibits of Sebastien Gaudard’s Patisserie des Martyrs. The wagashi are so sumptuous in their design that they could find a home alongside the jeweled accessories in Paris’s high-end designer boutiques.

While a delight to the eyes, the treats are not a delight to the wallet. A single sweet costs €5.50. Nevertheless, Toraya has found its niche market. The “bobos”- bourgeoisie bohemians- of Paris inhabit the sleek, wood paneled interior. Embracing a chic cosmopolitan lifestyle, these young, and upper class Parisians flock to teahouses such as Toraya.

Yet, the French embrace of Japanese culture is not new or exclusive to the “bobos”. The Japanese presence in Paris extends far beyond hip teahouses. Since the early 17th century, France and Japan have been engaged in a strong cultural trade. Monet, Degas, and Gauguin took inspiration from Japanese art, creating a new art style: Japonisme.

This century old Japanese presence pervades the city of Paris. A photography book on Japan lies hidden in a stack of books sold by one of the Bouquinistes along the banks of the Seine. Kimonos hang on a rack in the Kilo Shop, a thrift store in Saint-Germain.

There is no need to break a thrifty, university student budget at Toraya in order to find a piece of Japan in Paris.

 A second hand photography book on Japan. Photo by Mariachiara Ficarelli.